Saturday, October 31, 2009

First Heard in October 2009 - "Dear ShaDOW,"


I have been listening to the same music since college, so I devised a little project that will spur me to actively pursue new jams. Each month, I will post a mix of the best songs that I heard for the first time within those 30 or so days. Won't you follow me on this journey? Thrill to the futuresounds? Mock me for being late to the party?

VOL 4.:

Before embarking on this project I never really thought objectively about why the music I enjoy appeals to me. Now, listening to how one song flows into another or how a particular track feels as part of the whole has caused me sometimes to reconsider what I found interesting about it in the first place. The inclusion of Florence and The Machine's "Cosmic Love" on this month's mix is a particularly intriguing example. This song appeals directly to my inner romantic, which as much as I may want to deny it is really not that far below the surface. However, as I was listening to "Cosmic Love" and trying to find a place for it, I started to realize that there is a perilously thin, barely-discernible line separating it from something like Evanescence. I can't really articulate the difference - it's every bit as slick and melodramatic - beyond the fact that I just buy Florence's performance. Evanescence leaves me cold, and Florence's pop-operatic bombast stirs something deep within my soul. But I guess that is exactly what music is supposed to do, so who really cares why as long as it does?


001 Noah and the Whale - Love of an Orchestra
002 Strong Arm Steady (ft. Talib Kweli) - Get Started
003 Total Babe - Short Stories
004 Roxy Music - 2HB
005 Atlas Sound - Shelia
006 Le Loup - Beach Town
007 Alec Ounsworth - Obscene Queen Bee #2
008 Jason Zumpano - Beggars of Blue Sky
009 Florence and The Machine - Cosmic Love
010 Field Music - Measure
011 The Very Best - Chalo
012 Candy Claws - Catamaran
013 No Eye Contact - You Won't
014 Phoenix - Love Like A Sunset (Animal Collective Remix - Deakin's Jam)
015 Broken Social Scene - Stars And Sons
016 Delorean - Seasun
017 Tegan & Sara - Someday
018 Monsters Of Folk - His Master's Voice



Friday, October 30, 2009

Reel Low: The Blood of War

Imagine my surprise when looking at the local cineplex listings this past weekend for the first time in nearly two months to find that Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds [2009] still had a lone evening showing. This was one that I had really regretted missing in the theaters, and had resigned it's fate to my Netflix queue. Disappoint, it did not.
Whether deserved or not, when a Tarantino film is released, it's an event. Not the dress-up inducing, line-sprawling fandoms that accompany a modern film franchise to reach event status, but rather an event based on the director alone. Who else can say that these days? After the disaster that was The Happening, I think Scorsese may be the only other one left for the masses. Sure, there are some honorable mentions -- Spielberg, Soderbergh, the Cohen Brothers, Peter Jackson, maybe even Kevin Smith, to name a few -- but they all have something (or not enough) in their catalog that, for whatever reason, prevents most people from merely being interested in their new movies to creating immense buzz based on their name alone.
Needless to say, I was extremely pleased to actually see this one on the big screen.
Frankly, you should go and read Mark's extensive review of it here from August. His analysis mirrors much of my own thoughts on it, and does so much more eloquently than I probably would have.
Beyond that stuff, the down and dirty points you should know: it's violent (though not as violent as I was lead to believe), two-thirds of the dialogue is in French or German, Mélanie Laurent is a revelation, and contains some of the most insanely tense scenes I've seen this side of Leone.
There was some criticism of Tarantino's blantent disregard of historical fact. However, as Mark points out, this film is not about reality. I don't think it detracts from the believability of the story nor does it belittle the horrors of World War II. If anything, I believe it enhances the cinematic experience by defiling your expectations.
This was a truly fine film, certainly the best non-scifi release of the year that I've had the pleasure to view, and well-worth the event label it adorned.
In contrast, one of Tarantino's major influences took an entirely different approach with his WWII film. Jean-Pierre Melville, who I last wrote about on the site regarding his masterful crime piece Le Doulos, turned his attention to the French Resistance during the war in Army of Shadows [1969]. Unlike Tarantino's wartime fantasy, Melville examined the war in as realistic a light as I have ever seen. Considering that Army of Shadows is an espionage film completed amidst the early Sean Connery Bond era more than it is a military drama, it's even more impressive.
We follow Lino Ventura's Philippe Gerbier, a chief member in the French Resistance hierarchy, as he is in a constant state of avoiding and escaping confinement. Army of Shadows focuses upon the resistance, meaning there are very few actual action scenes depicted. Most of the violence is implied, which in a lot of ways is more intense than the exploits of the Basterds that we actually see in that movie, and instead relies on the silent menace of your imagination. There is no romantic idealization of what Gerbier is doing. It is simply his life. Melville cast his movie with rather unremarkable actors visually, which lends to it's realistic feel. Ventura, in particular, portrays his character with grand subtlety. The nuanced performances are an extension of Melville's own attention to detail. He rarely spells out the landscape of war-weary France, instead using small moments to relay the experiences of the world at that time. Take Gerbier's confidant who has built a little glass booth in his library -- there is no fuel for heating his home, thus his body heat when in the small quarters will make do.
Oh, and the score by Éric Demarsan is heartbreakingly astounding. Listen to the theme here.
Due to political attitudes in France at the time, the film was considered a failure. Few saw it then and was left unreleased in America until 2006. Because there is not a significant reputation attached with the film, I was genuinely shocked at just how extraordinary it is. It's been a long time since I've had that happen, and have probably ruined the same experience for you by touting it as such (my bad). Do yourself a favor and see it anyway.
Maybe it's because I saw a Tarantino film to start the week, but I couldn't help thinking of exploitation films while watching Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! [1968] a few days later.
Somewhat of a send-up of the genre in general, Kill! examines the nature of the samurai from many angles. Some are good, some are bad. Some try to leave the samurai life behind, while other characters go through every trial and tribulation to attain it. There's many good comedic performances and some great gags if you're a fan of some other Japanese movies of the time. Let's just say there is a very different set of seven samurai shown here. Plus, there are multiple sword-fighting sequences shot with dizzying pace. Great stuff from a supposed comedy.
But I found the real fun in this movie to be the obvious influence of the spaghetti western upon it. The blowing, desert-like dust. The lone man versus the many. Playing both sides of the opposition. But above all else, the music could've easily have been dubbed from a straight-up western from that era. The spanish guitar and horns aren't quite up to Ennio Morricone levels, but are still nicely performed.
All of this is especially fascinating because Sergio Leone was, of course, highly influenced by Akira Kurosawa's films before making the Man With No Name trilogy, particularly Yojimbo. For more trivia, Sanjuro (the sequel to Yojimbo) and Kill! were adaptations of the same book. I would imagine both strayed significantly.
Anyway, Kill! was a joy to watch with it's humor, action and exploration of the samurai. I found it on IFC's Samurai Saturdays, which is a great weekly source if you're a new fan of the genre.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

TV Tweets: Oct. 19 - 26

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest episodic memes, as well as other LBM updates.
Oct. 20th [Curb Your Enthusiasm]
  • I was just thinking about Wheelchair Wendy and how much trouble I would ever get in if I lost my phone.
Ever enter someone in your phone as a name that isn't their actual name? Yeah, me too. Every ep of Curb follows the same formula -- introduce something seemingly insignificant in the first five minutes, move on to other hilarity for the next 20, and then cycle back to it in the final minute. When this show works, like last week's "Denise Handicapped," you've completely forgotten about the first five minutes and it slaps you upside your head right before that tuba plays along with the credits. This was the most well-executed example thus far in season 7.

Oct. 23rd [CNBC's Squawk on the Street, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia]
  • Damn, I just heard some old man on CNBC refer to French people as FROGS.
That kinda blew my mind. I know it's racism at maybe it's least interesting (does anyone really care about offending the French?), but a racist comment nonetheless. Just did a quick Google News search and there was nothing about it anywhere, so I might be the only person who even noticed. Worst part -- Erin Burnett had the day off, so I was left to look at him after he said it.
  • 'Nother good Always Sunny this week, which reminds me from last -- Milksteak.
This hilarious show is so random, I find it very hard to isolate something to create discourse on, thus I don't write about it much. But, any time Charlie starts yelling, I'm a happy man.

Oct. 25th [Dollhouse]
  • Dang. Still the lesser of all the Whedon series, but this week's Dollhouse sure went to places I don't think any the others could have. A+
I was very wrong about Topher. He is not Andrew with social skills. His growing conscience is very intriguing.

Oct. 26th [Mad Men]
  • "And who are you supposed to be?" Don Draper's house of cards is falling.
I'm kinda upset that they FINALLY write some amazing, pro-Roger material this season, and then go ahead and drop the bomb you were expecting not to blow until the season finale. Obviously, Don literally breaking down is all I can think about now. Mr. Hamm, I believe you sealed up next year's Emmy with this week's performance. I can't believe I'm this excited for a drama that is completely sci-fi free, but I am.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Gauge - "A Serious Man" (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

What: "A Serious Man" (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)
When: Sunday, October 11th, 2009 9:30 PM
Where: Landmark Sunshine (143 E. Houston)

"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies..."
-Jefferson Airplane

The trials and crises of faith that beset physics professor Larry Gopnik, the harried protagonist of Joel & Ethan Coen's A Serious Man, are more or less the same that have beset countless Job-like literary schlubs throughout the centuries, albeit tinged with a distinctly late-1960s existential malaise. And although the mise-en-scene may have changed, in the Coens' latest there is still a flash of the Biblical amongst the banal suburban Minnesota landscape of F Troop and roadside motels. But what sets A Serious Man apart, both as a parable and as a "Coen Brothers film" (in many ways, it is the film the brothers' entire career has been building toward), is its discomfiting lack of answers.

It is nothing new for the Coens to eschew the traditional storytelling beats of conflict and resolution. The hauntingly abrupt, lyrical conclusion to No Country For Old Men is a prime example of their unconventional approach. Moreover, this sequence seems to have signaled a new direction in the brothers' work, deepening their sometimes hermetic formalism and exploring more earthbound anxieties. This contemplative style is intriguingly furthered by A Serious Man. While the particulars of the setting (an insular, Jewish community in 1960s suburban Minnesota) allow the Coens to indulge their interest in playing with colorful regional dialects, and in this case religious customs, the narrative is markedly divorced from the genre trappings they normally explore in their films. Here, the botched criminal enterprises that permeate the Coens' earlier works give way to an exploration of the ways in which striving to lead a decent life is the greatest swindle of all.

Larry Gopnik, who in many respects is a prototypical Coen brothers sad-sack in the tradition of Fargo's Jerry Lundegaard, stands out in their oeuvre in his desire to play by the rules. He resists the corrupting force of money that befell many a past Coen anti-hero, from Llewelyn Moss to Lundegaard himself, significantly refusing a bribe from a student seeking a passing grade. As portrayed by the superb stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, Gopnik is well-meaning and principled, yet ineffectual. He tries to be "a serious man" and is dumped on by fate at every turn. For all the criticism leveled at the Coens for the supposed disdain with which they regard their characters, they and Stuhlbarg imbue Gopnik with relatable fears concerning the value of the life he has built. As Larry is relentlessly steamrolled throughout the film by his wife's desire for a divorce, a contested tenure hearing at work and his inability to understand his eccentric brother and jaded children, his dawning crisis is embodied by Stuhlbarg through an assemblage of effectively subtle tics and stutters. The decisions of the filmmakers and the actor to internalize Larry's struggle and resist their more histrionic characterization tendencies proves surprisingly powerful and marks another step forward in the Coens' evolution.

As Larry seeks psychic refuge in the counsel of a series of Rabbis on the eve of his son's bar mitzvah, we arrive at the thematic core of A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers are using the very specific predicament of Larry Gopnik of Minnesota to meditate on the fundamental question of existence: What does it all mean? As expressed in the Jefferson Airplane song that continually wafts through the earbuds of young Danny Gopnik's transistor radio (symbolizing the tidal wave of social change barreling toward their suburban street), the Coens are exploring what happens when everything we hold true is suddenly challenged. Where does one go from that moment of realization? The filmmakers resist easy answers, opting instead to coyly ignore the unknown. In a sequence that serves as some sort of skewed thesis statement for A Serious Man, one of the Rabbis relates to Larry the story of "The Goy's Teeth." The tale concerns a dentist who finds cryptic Hebrew characters etched into the teeth of a gentile patient. He is consumed with figuring out their origin and his life quickly falls apart in the wake of this obsession. Larry understandably and eagerly awaits a resolution to the story that never comes, as the Rabbi trails off, explaining that there are things in life we will simply never understand. Some may argue that this is the film's maddening shortcoming, but it is unmistakably deliberate, and a thought-provoking, though admittedly dour approach.

The closest perhaps that Joel & Ethan Coen come to explaining existence in A Serious Man is in the chilling final sequence, a moment of utter dread that shows us that regardless of purpose, life's various challenges are coming for us and we are powerless to stop them.

Click here to see the "A Serious Man" trailer

Reel Low: No, it really happened!

I went to see "Paranormal Activity" on Sunday and have to say after reading the positive reviews about this movie I had to wonder if I missed something. The film is shot cinema verite style ala "The Blair Witch Project" with boyfriend Micah behind the camera documenting the haunting of his girlfriend Katie. As the movie progresses, it is revealed that it's a demon that's been attched to Katie since she was 8 and for some inexplicable reason, it's decided to start acting up again. Doors are slammed, shadows move, and thudding abounds to startle and scare the audience all leading up to a fairly standard halloween campfire story ending that makes the movie unsettling more in the "Hookhand" story way and less in "The Exorcist" way.

While I don't mind documentary style in the camera work, "Paranormal Activity" doesn't apply this to the roles. Everyone comes off as standard horror movie stereotypes. Katie is the cute, scared girl who listens to her boyfriend even though she knows better. Micah comes off as the boyfriend who doesn't take things seriously, and when things finally get serious he won't be emasculated by the supernatural events swirling around him, all because she's his girlfriend. The psychic is a character provided to give and to be a reason for exposition. What equipment did the boyfriend buy and why? Well, let him explain it to the psychic. What exactly are they dealing with? The psychic will tell us.

This movie follows more in the way of "Cloverfield" than "Blair Witch" except that with the former there was no pretense that it was a document of an actual event. Moments that really expose the horror movie construct occur when the boyfriend mentions getting a Ouija board, which the girlfriend and the psychic tell him he shouldn't do, and then goes out and gets one like the character that he is. Also, when said Ouija board's cursor is caught on camera moving on its own eventually setting the board on fire, the boyfriend doesn't see this as a sign to get real help but as a puzzle to figure out. The entity also comes off as more of an obsessive boyfriend that wants to hook up with Katie than a terrible force of unknown reasoning messing about with the physical world to torment the mortals that live in it.

Just remember, Katie is still at large! DUN DUN DUN

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reel Low: Vroom, Vroom, A Highbrow Pause, Vroom

Just another week in the bizarre land that is my movie-watching habits.
So we begin with one of the summer's blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [2009]. Had it not been for Megan Fox's presence in the first movie, I probably wouldn't have finished watching it. A dull plot, unfunny gags and completely indecipherable action scenes were sprinkled with just enough of her in slow motion that I sat there waiting for something else good to come along. It never did.
Because of that, I skipped the second installment in the theater, but knew I'd check it out once the bluray disc hit the streets. Why on Earth I felt compelled to torture myself, I can't say.
There was one improvement over the first movie, and that was the action scenes. This time you could actually see what the hell was happening. Kind of key when the main subjects on screen are giant robots ramming into each other. Megan Fox may have been given even less to do this time around, but she's hot and Michael Bay, while not above including crude, racial stereotypes for the personalities of two entirely unnecessary Transformers, is happy to showcase her flesh at every point possible. He may be a hack, but he's not entirely stupid.
As for the bad? Well, somehow those parents got even more annoying. However, I will admit that the humping dogs are kinda funny. But one more scene with them getting busy probably would've tossed it to the bad side. Oh, and the most ridiculous thing about this movie? The poster for Bad Boys II in a college freshman's dorm room in 2009. Check your ego at the door next time, Mr. Bay.
The main problem, however, is that Revenge of the Fallen is way too long, especially considering I barely have an idea as to what it was about. I think I understand what an All-Spark is. How that differs from the Matrix of Leadership, got me. (Yes, some piece of metal is actually called the Matrix of Leadership. AND someone was not fired for suggesting that be kept in the movie.)
Overall, it was just a boring movie. Which feels ridiculous to write because there are a lot of action scenes in it. Unfortunately not one of them makes your heart skip a beat, or places a character that you care about in series peril because I didn't care about a single person in this thing. After two entire movies, I'd have thought that to be nearly impossible.
In short, a completely unnecessary sequel.
However, that's not the case for The Fast and the Furious universe. Is it wrong that I think four movies in this series aren't nearly enough? Well, then I don't want to be right.
I hadn't seen any of these movies six months ago, but have become quite the connoisseur in that time. The original [2001] was actually pretty decent despite it's B-movie plot. For the time, the effects were top-notch and, if you didn't know there were a bunch of sequels, you kinda wonder if everyone is going to make it back in one piece in a few spots. A fair amount of violence mixed in with your illegal street racing and exposed midriffs, with one liners delivered entertainingly by Vin Diesel.
Now, as fun as the original is, 2 Fast 2 Furious [2003] might be the most unintentionally homo-erotic movie I have ever seen. Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson repeatedly make man-eyes at each other. This is not Ledger and Gyllenhaal. It's not even Swayze and Reeves. It's two models masquerading as actors, tapping into something that wasn't even in the subtext of the script. In any event, it has nothing to do as to why it's the worst of the series. It's just where my mind wondered between dialogue uttered by people in cars about other racers that only they can hear. This is what happens when you can't get Diesel to come back and decide to let Paul Walker carry a movie. Not good.
But then came the third movie (though chronologically it is the forth after the newest one), the surprisingly enjoyable and thoroughly ridiculous The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift [2006]. None of the cast from the first two make the trip across the Pacific, and that's okay. The driving scenes are definitely distinguishable when compared to the other movies, as adopting the Tokyo street, or shall I say parking lot, racing was a clear goal of director Justin Lin. The main character is just this tough kid, played by Lucas Black, and I constantly rooted for him; maybe it was the accent, but he has a little of that southern Matthew McConaughey charm that is flat out likable is used correctly. The racing seemed more connected to the underworld than the other movies, which something I'm instantly going to gravitate to.
Despite the lame, direct-to-DVD-esque title, Tokyo Drift is worth your time, assuming you like fun.
That brings me to the new, lazily titled Fast and Furious [2009]. The original cast members return to rev up the series for future installments. It's immediately apparent that Diesel needs to be in these movies to combat the suck that is Paul Walker, especially if his character continues to get angrier. Somehow Walker is magically a fed again and he's on the hunt for Diesel. So, not much has changed, plotwise.
What has changed for this cast is the adaptation of the sleeker directorial style from Tokyo Drift, as Lin was brought in for this one as well. There's a rooftop chase scene early on that wouldn't exist without the Bourne movies, among some other striking visual sequences that wouldn't have been thought possible at the series' outset. Comparing it to the others, I'd place this one at the same level as the original. Tokyo Drift really surprised me and is my favorite of the bunch. Not that it's the greatest movie ever, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot.
Why do I sort of give a pass to this series and not Transformers? Well, for one, no annoying parents. Two, the stories, though often predictable, are at least decently thought out and only direct the plot to the next car race instead of forcing it. Plus, these movies LOVE cars. To the point that it seems as though these mere machines can conjure magic if you're a talented enough driver. In Transformers, the cars morphing to humanoid bots (actual alien car magic) is handled so nonchalantly, that you aren't even particularly impressed by it. No, cars are temples in the Fast and the Furious series. Considering how these guys destroy their avatars at times, it demands your respect at their willingness sacrifice the very objects they adore. Transformers just goes boom. And one such as I can only handle so much senseless boom.
That's why I needed to mix it up a bit this week with a film that contained a little more substance. Or, in this next movie's case, a lot more.
It had been on the DVR for a while, so I finally forced myself to start watching Synecdoche, New York [2008]. This is the masterful screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his better performances (trust me, I realize that's saying something) as a theater director who's life systematically collapses. Later in the film, he starts a ginormous production that examines every aspect of our mundane existences.As I was trying to formulate my thoughts on this film, I kept returning to variations of "it was interesting," and at one point was going to leave it at that. But then I realized I using "interesting" in that way when you're trying to be polite to someone (in this case, Kaufman's genius) instead of just coming out and saying what you really feel. It's certainly not a bad film and it's not that I didn't like it. I think I did. But I'm still struggling over whether or not I enjoyed it.
Part of it might be that it was simply over my head in terms of concept. I'm doubting that. I think what has been bothering me is Kaufman's concept, much like Hoffman's character's own, is so large, it isn't easily contained to 120 minutes. Perhaps his lack of directorial experience played into a the film falling just short of a complete success; unfortunately in a film that aims this high, falling short is a noticeable ways from the intended destination.
A quick side note -- Michelle Williams was in this as well, and I hadn't seen her in anything for some time. She's much better here than I can remember her ever being, and it got me thinking about how far most of those Dawson's Creek kids have come. Katie Holmes did some pretty decent work in spots pre-Tom Cruise (The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys, Thank You For Smoking), and could always get back to it. Joshua Jackson has been pretty steady on Fringe, and to my surprise hasn't been annoying or distracting. But other than Rules of Attraction, James Van Der Beek hasn't done jack, so I guess it's about time he stepped it up.
Three outta four ain't bad. Kinda makes you wonder if those Gossip Girl kids will end up like these ones or the original 90210 cast.
Or you could just watch something else where things get blowed up.
Enter Death Race [2008], the remake of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000. I saw the original probably six years ago, and it's some ridiculous, campy stuff. I imagine it was shocking in it's day, but remember it playing rather pedestrian in most respects today. While the original depicted a cross-country race with the contestants battling each other along the way, this one is merely a game show contest between violent prisoners racing for their freedom on an isolated track, somewhat reminiscent of The Running Man in cars. Can't say I remember much more about the first one, but I'm pretty sure that's where the comparisons end.
The new Death Race actually has a pretty engaging first act, something I wasn't expecting in the slightest. It fails to maintain that interest through to the end, but it only devolves into what you'd expect it to: fast cars, scantily clad ladies and blood. Three things I generally like.
How they convince someone like Joan Allen to do a movie like this amazes me. An actress of her caliber is wasted here. Nearly anyone could have delivered her lines. But I would venture more people saw her in this than in The Contender.
Amazingly, Ian McShane also agreed to get paid for this movie. We all know he was phenomenal as Al Swearengen on HBO's Deadwood a few years back, but after watching his performance here, I think people completely underrate him as an actor. It had to be easy for someone like him to recite lines handed down from David Milch; all the actors on that show have yet to outperform themselves thus far. But here he made shitty Paul W.S. Anderson dialogue riveting! While Joan Allen was wooden and useless, McShane steals the movie every time he's on screen. Clearly, he is the man.
Jason Statham is badass, as always. Tyrese is horrible, as usual (Wow, three Tyrese movies in one week? I didn't mention him, but he was in Fallen too. I must have mental issues). The rest is inconsequential, because all that really matters is three things: fast cars, scantily clad ladies and blood. You get all three, so turn off your brain for 90 minutes plus and be happy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Raves: Charlie Huston's Twitter Feed

Thought I'd let all of you out there know about Charlie Huston's latest Twitter experiment. If you're unaware, the novelist/comic scribe periodically uses Twitter as a means to release an original story (I'm not exactly sure what to call it -- novella and short story don't seem entirely appropriate) that he began on June 28th. Recently, he posted a bunch of 140-character sets at once to finish it up. For the last story, he did a single tweet almost daily. I suspect it'll be a little while until he starts another, but I can't wait until he does.

Just go to his Twitter page, click on MORE until you can't any longer, and start reading up. Definitely the most interesting use of Twitter I've heard of.

Free crime fiction. Thank you, sir.
Also, the good folks at Amazon sent me Huston's newest novel, My Dead Body, to me this week. It's the final Joe Pitt Casebook, so I want to savor it and have been waiting until I'm not exhausted before starting it. Look for a review soon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

TV Tweets: Oct. 12 - 19

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get the latest electronic snippets of my soul, as well as other LBM updates.
Oct. 12th [Mad Men]
  • Hmm... Maybe Connie will screw Don over first. Oh, and Carla needs to get the F outta that house.
I have to say, it's not looking good for Don as of late. He hasn't had a clear win in a while. His awesome pitch went nowhere (but maybe nothing would've worked there). And no, I don't think Sally's teacher is a win. Much too easy. Oh, and there's nothing like slamming those racist heathens down in Dixie while your African-American maid doles out hors d'oeuvres to your guests, is there?

Oct. 14th [Sons of Anarchy
, Nip/Tuck]
  • Enjoyed #sonsofanarchy when I thought it was going to have the most gratuitous display of gunplay on TV this week with Gemma and Tara...
  • Then came that last scene. Best ep of the series thus far.
Sons of Anarchy is a gem of a show. It was slightly above average at the outset of season one, but really came into its own at the close of that year. This year, it has really put things together and is now something I look forward to seeing each Tuesday. You've probably seen most of the guys in the motorcycle club as bit players in other things, and here they get an opportunity to shine as actors AND look like a bunch of dirty bastards while doing so. Ron Pearlman is suburb in everything as far as I'm concerned, and I'll always have a big crush on Maggie Siff after season one of Mad Men. And I'm shocked Katey Sagal can actually act, and really well too. Catch up and watch this show. It's damn good.
  • Nip/Tuck returned tonight. Only got through 5 or so episodes before bowing out last year. Is it still worth watching or a waste 'o time?
I'm serious. Is it? Have they run out of sexual taboos to exploit yet?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Select Button

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, or MUA2 as the kids on the internets are calling it, is the latest installment in a game line that can trace its origins back to X-Men Legends. What Activision seems to be aiming for this time around is less of a direct sequel to MUA and more of an adaptation of two Marvel stories with an original third act added to wrap things up.

The gameplay is relatively unchanged

save for the addition of the fusion attacks and the omission of the hard to pull off combo system from the first game. You have the option of customizing your team’s abilities as they advance or you can have the computer handle that for you if you just want to play through. One thing that I missed though was the alternate costumes and the ability to modify through them. Thematically, this plays in quite well with the universe they’ve decided to occupy this time around.

The first MUA seemed to be a mish-mash of Marvel’s mainstream continuity with its Ultimate books. This time around, Captain America has wings on his head, Thor wears a cape, and everyone more or less resembles their 616 universe look. I find that they actually improved on certain costumes by giving them that leather uniform look that the X-Men movies made so popular.

The story is pretty much straight out of Marvel’s Secret War and Civil War storylines, but are constructed off of the conclusion of the first game. Doom is still gone and is assumed dead, and there is a mention of Galactus coming to Earth. Granted, I was looking forward to playing out a Galactus centered game, but in the end this game turned into a great way to access the source material in a fresh way and I hope Marvel takes note of this.

The meat and potatoes of the game takes place in the realm of the Civil War storyline where you are asked to choose a side in the fight between heroes who are for super-hero registration and those that stand against it. Of course your choice effects what characters can be on your team but it also gives you different POVs for the story as well as different boss battles, though some of those don’t seem too different to one another.

The thing I found particularly interesting about this is that it feels like it hooks into how comic book crossovers are handled by readers. As a reader, you are able to buy into other titles , while it’s not necessary, it can give you insight into what other characters are doing during the events of the main story. You have the same option here, you can pursue one side of the game or the other and play it to a satisfying conclusion. You can then go back if you like and take the other path and see what was unfolding on the other side. Both choices lead to the same conclusion but it’s such an interesting way to present a comic book story.

I’m hoping we see more comic book video games like this that choose to present stories in this fashion. When I finished the game following both paths I was so interested in the source material, I picked up Secret War and bits of Civil War and was amazed at how close they stuck to it and admire the decisions they made when they departed from it. They also didn’t end the game with a cliffhanger, which while it was nice with the first game, certainly ties the hands of the next development team who might take a crack at it. Here’s hoping they have another go at a project like this (and please bring back Doctor Strange).

Monday, October 12, 2009

TV Tweets: Oct. 5 - 12

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest QWERTY contemplations, as well as other LBM updates.
Oct. 5th [Mad Men]
  • "By golly, you are an indecently lucky man." -- Conrad Hilton
Every time he comes on screen, I want Don to screw him over somehow so friggin' Paris will never exist. Then I realize I'm only watching TV and calm down. Sort of.

Oct. 6th [Curb Your Enthusiasm]
I can only imagine how funny this line would've been if I had known about it beforehand, and I was on the floor when it was delivered. Check out the link to find out more.

Oct. 9th [The Office]
  • Very disappointed that The Office parodied the Chris Brown wedding dance thing, even though they mocked it to make it seem less lame.
I actually re-watched this ep again tonight. That wedding rehearsal dinner speech is now officially the second-most, eye-stabbingly awkward sequence ever put on film (after that answering machine debacle in Swingers, of course).

Oct. 10th [Fringe]
  • Fringe finally gives answers! And in typical JJ Abrams fashion, those answers only created more questions.

Monday, October 05, 2009

TV Tweets: Sept. 28 - Oct. 5

Hey, look! A new feature at LowBrowMedia!
Welcome to the inaugural installment of "TV Tweets," where I'll re-post any television-related tweets from the last week.
I've found that TV is a tricky medium to include in my other articles, and I feel as though Twitter is a better way to monitor it 1.) because it'll immediately align with the ever-changing flow of episodic stories, 2.) I watch too many shows to write something thorough on even a few of them weekly, and 3.) the comments have to be to the point with only 140 characters to work with, which is good for me since I'm in constant danger of going on needlessly. I may expand on what was posted on the initial entry if I feel it's warranted.
Keep in mind, you can always follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest media musings, as well as other LBM updates.

Sept. 28th [FlashForward]
  • Don't think I'll be watching more #FlashForward until it stops trying to be Lost. Unexplained crash? Random animal? Desmond's Penny? C'mon.
Sept. 29th [Bored to Death, Mad Men]
  • The Bored to Death pilot was superb. I may start myself on a regimen of white wine now.
I loved this show. I have NO idea who this Jonathan Ames dude is, but it's pretty clear he is the shit. That was definitely one of the best pilots I've ever seen. Plus, Zach Galifianakis has been on such a roll lately; you can only hope he gets a bit more screen time.
Who in the hell saw THAT coming? Two weeks in a row, Mad Men continues to shock.

Sept. 30th [Curb Your Enthusiasm]
Who needs the Seinfeld cast? The Black Family somehow improved this show when they showed up last season, and I'm elated that JB Smoove in particular is back again.

Oct. 5th [Dollhouse]
  • All caught up with Dollhouse; pretty decent so far early in the season.
I'm glad this show is turning the corner. It'll be nice to see if they ever tie it to the DVD-exclusive episode from season one that shows a dystopic future. Also very interesting to see Jamie Bamber get to use his real accent in the first episode. Not sure if he's a good actor yet though.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Reel Low: A Wave of Crime Flicks

Technically, this is a "Genres & Judgments" entry with the quick recaps, but because it only contains movie reviews and since I'm way behind, I'm giving it the "Reel Low" banner. Anyway, on to the good stuff.
Ah, yes... the long-awaited review of The Yakuza (1975). This flick was good, surprisingly so in many respects.
Robert Mitchum plays a WWII vet who is asked by a friend to retrieve his kidnapped daughter from his old stomping grounds in Tokyo. Then comes the second act. Sydney Pollack directed this film, and his handling of the Japanese culture and the traditions of both the samurai and yakuza are done with nothing but respect. Plus, there's some pretty intense action scenes and deliciously violent special effects in this film (well, at least by 1975 standards).
I'd most recently seen Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) a few months ago, which was the role he took just before this one. For an actor who thrived upon using sparse dialogue and little emotion on screen, he used that technique to entirely different effects between those two roles. Gone is the nearly broken, aging, small-time hood just trying to get by and instead is an experienced, shotgun-wielding mad man out for revenge. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but this is really fine film that works on a lot of levels. It seems to have fallen through the cracks a bit, as I'd never heard it mentioned amongst the really great action movies of that era. Possibly because it has a bit more depth to it than Death Wish II; who knows? Regardless, this was a very good movie. Hunt it down.
Ever seen a movie made by someone with an amazing track record that tons of people have raved over, but when all is said and done, you were left trying to figure out what all the hoopla was all about? This was my reaction to Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). I just didn't like it that much. It's supposed to be a black comedy, but I barely laughed. I'd go on, but then I'll just sound like some asshole that thinks I'm smarter than Hitchcock. End of the day, it's not Vertigo or North By Northwest.
However, another cinematic mastermind certainly did not disappoint me with the absolutely phenomenal Le Doulos (1962). Translating to English as "The Finger Man" (French slang for being a rat), it is slightly unusual in structure, as the story switches between two criminals but neither is really a main character. The murder and thieving are juxtaposed with some downright honorable deeds, making for some really hard-to-see plot twists. It felt as though there was a constant sense of danger lurking within each scene of this movie.
Plus, it contains what I'm sure will be one of my all-time favorite scenes involving a lightpost on film. It's subtle, and most of you would probably think I'm crazy for being so interested in it, but I can't help it; I just am.This was my second Jean-Pierre Melville experience (after Bob Le Flambeur), and I'm feverishly looking forward to watching his other underworld marvels.
Sticking with the French cinema, next up is the criminal rehabilitation drama Deux Hommes Dans La Ville, aka Two Men in Town (1973). This was recommended to me via Netflix, and until I got to the last few minutes, I couldn't figure out why as I was watching it. Overall, it's rather unremarkable by today's standards. Alain Delon plays a man who is just released from prison after 10 years and, once out, he and Jean Gabin's social-worker character become good friends. Of course, there's a lot a of personal tragedy, old criminal friends (including a very young Gerard Depardieu), and a dedicated, yet misguided detective after Delon's character. None of which were particularly memorable or surprising.
Since a few of you out there may be interested in watching it for yourselves, take a jump to the next part of the post because I'm going to spoil it for the rest of you who will probably never bother.

Okay, so back to why this must've been recommended for me: the freaking last scene was crazy! The film is really a rally call against the prison and judicial system, particularly capital punishment. Delon's character keeps getting harassed by the obsessed cop and finally snaps, killin
g him. Then he gets put on trial, and is sentenced to death. Up to this point, the movie felt a little dated and I was just waiting for it to end, but it played everything straight and was realistic as far as crime flicks go. As Delon walks to his fate, a giant group of people are walking with him (must be a French thing, everyone including the lawyers, cops, friends and the judge are there) enter a room. They stop. He kinda starts freaking out and has to be restrained. Then a mammoth curtain drops, revealing a fucking guillotine! No wonder that mofo just lost his shit. They actually put him in it, the blade drops and 3 seconds later the screen goes black with rolling credits. And I'm left all, "WTF?!?! How did this just turn into a insane allegory on me?"
Or so I thought. Apparently France hadn't ceased its use of the guillotine until 1977, four years after when this movie was made. So this would've happened to a French guy on death row in 1973.
I see your game now, Netflix. Educating the young on world history through seemingly random recommendations. Well played.
Next up is Pride and Glory (2008), an uneven family cop drama that, much like Two Men in Town, plods over very familiar territory.
On the plus side is the usually reliable Edward Norton (he is here as well), and two above-average performances from Colin Farrell and Jon Voight. He seems to get a lot of flack, but I tend to like Farrell as an actor (he was phenomenal as Ray in In Bruges recently), and Voight surprised me only because I can't remember the last time I saw him in something where he wasn't merely mailing it in (I have read good things about 2004's The Karate Dog, however). Anyway, Voight is the patriarch of family of cops, comprised of his two sons and a son-in-law. There's lots of dirty cop activity in their district, and Norton discovers his family is not in the clear while investigating the murder of fellow officers.
You've seen versions of all of this stuff in other movies, but it's not bad by any means. If you're a fan of interrogation scenes, this one may contain the most evil threat imaginable to extract information from an informant I've ever seen. Farrell was in a state of pure psychosis when filming that one. In sum, decent movie; don't expect too much originality.
I finally got around to watching Paul Thomas Anderson's first full-length feature Hard Eight (1996) recently as well. This effort has early appearances from Anderson's stable of actors including Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and one really great scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a complete asshole at the craps table. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow round out the cast in this indie gambling drama.
Hall plays old-time grifter who seemingly picks Reilly's character at random to teach him the tricks of the con trade. The two partner up and live their lives in dumpy hotel rooms between bets. There's some pretty good small-time scams illustrated, though I would imagine many would be hard to pull off these days as technology has improved in the favor of the casinos.
Due to his recent comedic turns, I had forgotten that Reilly used to be a pretty serious actor. This isn't his best work by any means, but he plays the confused, unhinged loser well. It was also interesting to see him as the student when remembering his performance as the teacher of the grift in Criminal from 2004. It's sobering to think that 1996 was 13 years ago.
While not as strong as Anderson's later films, this is still an interesting watch, at least from the perspective of seeing a filmmaker come into his own, if nothing else.